Hospital Ghosts



So last week I had my annual mammogram (there is nothing to report by the way, knock wood spit spit), it is something I have been doing since I was 35, being eligible for early breast cancer screening.This is ironically  because my treatment for Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma included radiotherapy to my chest, which increases a woman’s chances of breast cancer (I honestly don’t remember exactly how much/try not to dwell on it).

Usually mammograms and the follow up grope (I mean…it’s necessary, but still, having your oranges and lemons squeezed is always awkward! ;-)) are fairly straightforward for me, emotionally. It has been 14 years next month since my cancer diagnosis, and I have had a few trips to and from the same hospital for various other ailments.

But I’m not going to lie, sometimes, for some reason, it takes me back. This time there was a fairly obvious reason, there was a woman in the waiting room who was clearly a cancer patient. This has never actually happened before when I went.  

I tried to make eye contact and smile without being weird or awkward, because I know how hard it is to be someone who no one wants to make eye contact with. On the flip side I know how hard it is to be the object of pitying stares.

The blessing and the curse of being a cancer “survivor”, is that you know the pain, but you are no longer identifiable as a sick person, and so you feel like a jerk for not being able to somehow communicate this.

Of course it matters little to anyone in the thick of it that someone else got through it, well maybe it matters some, but you never, ever want to be the smug survivor, telling them they “can do it”, because you know it is not really in their control and they are probably as sick to death of hearing the meaningless platitudes as you once were.

So anyway I then felt guilty, of course, just for being there, in my healthy, albeit cancer scarred body. Because honestly?  I don’t really sweat mammograms. I don’t think about the possibility much at all if I’m honest.

Is it denial? Very likely. No one likes a post cancer hypochondriac. Usually I have a “treat yo’self” day on mammogram day and get myself a cupcake on the way home. Because having your boobs squished down to the size of pancakes isn’t a lot of fun:  it’s not the worst thing in the world, but it kind of sucks also.

But it’s not something I usually let get to me. As I was leaving and almost to the hospital doors there was a man, with a shaved head  covered in large stitches and an i.v. with him standing in line at the new (since my time there) coffee stand. He looked scary and frightening I imagine to most people in the line, just popping by for a visit. But I recognized and remembered something of myself in him.

Before I was diagnosed, I had never spent a night in the hospital in my life that I remembered (I broke my arm when I was three and I think I did have a short stay because of asthma as a kid, but I don’t remember either). But hospitals generally scared me. The smell alone freaked me out. Sick people scared me.

But once you are an inpatient for any length of time, you just start to give zero f*cks in a weird way. I had three surgeries in the course of a month, two failed/inconclusive biopsies and eventually open chest surgery that left me in intensive care and then in hospital for a week or so after. I was also admitted after my second or third chemo treatment (I don’t recall exactly) for uncontrolled nausea. 

SO I went from being a person who had flitted in and out of hospitals a handful of times briefly, to someone who spent a month or so as a person who lived in a hospital. I hated it, mostly, but at times I also found it oddly soothing, to be alone, at night, with my scary thoughts. A very kind nurse would stop in and listen to my often morphine addled insomniac thoughts (or maybe I imagined her! ;-)).

I was very lucky, in NHS terms, in that because I was a young female and on the heart patient ward, and after that the blood cancer ward, so I never had to share a room. I had plenty of visitors but visiting hours are limited and I would often get bored. A few times I took myself for a little walk, when I still had an i.v., to the hospital tuck shop for a magazine, a drink, some air (no point trying to get air outside the doors as the air  is smoke filled though!).

And while I felt a bit self-conscious, I also felt like “This is my place, I belong here, and I will not be embarrassed or shamed to be ill in a place that guess what nosy drive by visitors looking at me uncomfortably, is here for the sick.”

So anyway, it’s just part of life, 14 years later, to still have to visit the hospital where I went through hopefully the worst time, for various other things, and try to not get sucked into the past too much. Usually I don’t. 

But sometimes it’s hard not to, this time I cried on the walk home and got mad at myself for it, which is
pretty unfair on myself if you ask me (;-)), the same walk I took for 28 days after radiotherapy, that keeps me coming back now “just in case”. Even though I stopped having cancer check-ups a few years back, even though I can now go days or even weeks without thinking about any of it much.

I do feel I have moved on from my cancer experience, but it doesn’t mean I don’t still get bad days or sad days or survivor’s guilt or fear of it coming back sometimes. That is just life after cancer, and I get frustrated when we as cancer survivors are expected to forget about it completely somehow.I don't think most people realize that most of us have to deal with it in some way or other for years afterwards.

We get reminders all the time, often not even as memory triggered as mine at the hospital. It might just be a movie where someone gets cancer, or a charity ad that is designed to tug at the heartstrings but somehow saddens and infuriates you at once. 

You are allowed to have all sorts of complicated feelings as a former person with cancer, which is all I really wanted to say I guess. You don’t have to be brave or anyone’s hero or inspiration, your constant strength is not required. Just let it ALL out and cry and rage sometimes, it’s ok and it’s normal. And don’t forget to buy yourself a cupcake, you earned it!


Random old grainy snowstorm pic from up north a few years back, I feel like we might be in for a White Christmas this year, it's cold in Scotland!

8 comments

  1. I never really thought about it but it makes sense to have some PTSD from such a life changing/traumatic event. I'm in no way an expert but you should let yourself cry when your body wants to cry! I mean, it seems like this doesn't happen all of the time, or get in the way of normal life so I'm in the camp of let your body feel what it feels, whether you understand why or not.

    And bravo on the mammos, I think it's going to take a ton of mental convincing to get me to go. I'm not a fan of the process, you just know that machine was developed by a man.

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    1. I guess it is probably a bit like PTSD, tbh! :-0 Mammograms aren't THAT bad, you really should go! (I feel like it's my duty of the sisterhood to say this!). There is a funny cartoon of a man being asked to put his member in a mammogram somewhere I have seen! It is a bit ridiculous they haven't made it any less awful in so many years. Like, a vise for your boobs, is that really all science can come up with?! :-/

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  2. 1.) This post was so well written - your writing blows me away! The way you are able to convey things, you have such a clear voice. All the things.
    2.) Hugs. Just so many hugs. Because you are beautiful and funny and cool and strong, though none of those things is required, and just hugs for being awesomely you.

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    1. Aw. That's truly a big compliment coming from you, I'm not worthy, etc. - thanks Becky! xoxo

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  3. I do not even know where to start Steff. I will start from this... 35? What the actual...? In my mind you are 28, do not ask me why just my brain is convinced you are and you were for the past two years I known you. Secondly your heartwarming, honest posts always give me such a new perspective to everything that is happening around me. I guess I can only thank you for that! Stay strong girl because you are amazing! xxx

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    1. Ha ha I will take 28 no problem Iga thanks! ;-) Thanks lovely! xx

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